Transparent Music Pt 1

Nope, this isn’t going to be a review of the excellent BJ Cole album of the same name (though that always comes highly recommended!) – no, in this context, transparent music relates to making music that isn’t obscured by the technical and ego-laden concerns of the creator… It’s something that bassists seem to struggle with more than most, often content to label what we do as ‘bass music’ or to see other bassists as a target market. So many bass-led albums end up being largely displays of technical virtuosity and bass-ish gimmickry devoid of much musical content. Or even with plenty of musical content obscured by the techno-wank going on over the top.

I dispensed with the idea of targeting bassists as my primary market a long time ago. I did so not because I don’t like bassists listening to what I do (dear bassists of the world, I love you very much indeed), but because of how it affected the way I thought about making music. As I’ve reiterated here a number of times, impressing bassists isn’t that hard – indeed it’s often the stuff that is least musical by a particular artist that gets the strongest accolades from the bassists of the world – youtube is full of half-assed bass cleverness getting the ‘wow that’s amazing!!!’ treatment from the enthralled bass playing teenagers of the planet. But will it ever get airplay? Probably not. Will you ever see it on a gig of any kind? Probably not. That’s not to say that the people making it shouldn’t be doing it – of course anyone can make whatever noises they want and upload the vids to youtube without me policing it!!! – but it’s important to be aware of what’s at work, and how it affects YOU the artist.

If you find yourself thinking about your target audience when you’re making your music, in a ‘this’ll wow them’ kind of way, that’s going to affect the emotional range of what you come up with. Guaranteed. You’re narrowing yourself to ‘wow music’, and that’s not, for the most part, a particularly fertile furrow to plough.

So this is where the idea of transparent music comes in – music unobscured by the technical overload ladened on to leave teen bassist’s tongues hanging out. Music where the story, the emotion, the vibe, the scene that’s being set is foremost in the listener’s awareness when they’re listening.

So am I saying that technique isn’t important? Of course I’m not. Technique is doubly important because it has no real currency in and of itself, so it needs to be learnt, perfected and then set to work serving the greater musical picture. It needs to be much more highly developed given that the cleverness of it will be no coverup for a bunch of fluffed notes, when it’s meant to be conveying something else to the listener.

It requires mindfulness and maturity, clarity of thought and purpose, and is particularly difficult if you’re thinking about how you’re going to sell the end product when you’ve finished it. But no-one said make great music would be easy. It clearly isn’t, given how much risibly dire shit gets through the radio/magazine/tv filters – most music is at best mediocre. Which is all the more of a challenge to make something of substance. As Ellis Marsalis once told his son Wynton – “those who play for applause, that’s all they get.” – technique has to be at the service of something deeper, or it becomes circus performance.

And of course, it goes without saying that that deeper thing can be incredibly technically advanced – have a listen to Michael Manring, Don Ross, John Coltrane etc. etc…. It’s just that in each case, the music, the passion, the spirit is deeply evident in every note.

In the UK for quite a few years through the late 90s and early 00s the exact opposite of the flashness thing was true – musicians were actively shying away from appearing to be technically proficient, preferring to sound shitty and untrained as a way of appearing to be 4 REAL. Bollocks. It just meant that nothing grooved and a whole load of musical language that REQUIRES proficiency dropped off the musical map for a while.

One of the reasons that so many times of musical transition have been characterised by drug use is not that drugs make you more creative. It’s just that they shut off the voices that tell you what you CAN’T do. And very few people can be bothered to go through the process of shutting out those voices in a way that doesn’t rely on drugs. It’s tough. It’s really hard to filter through the thousands of messages we get from marketeers about how we should be, what we should like, what’s cool and why cool matters. And it’s all utter bullshit. Picking a path through it is a life long pursuit, and a daily one at that. A process of naming and disregarding the BS voices trying to get us to conform and consume.

It’s the same in the music world as anywhere else. Fads, fashions, new gear, new software, new models for this and that. Buy a new bass and your tone will magically compensate for the 10 years of half-assed non-focussed practice that you haven’t been doing. Picking through that, realising that there aren’t any short cuts, but there are efficient ways of doing the work, there are useful ways of thinking about what it is that we do that will help us cut down on wasted time and get to the place of creativity and clarity sooner, and without needing to get stoned to be there.

Feel free to post your thoughts and experiences in the comments, before I expand on this in Pt II. :o)

David Sylvian at the RFH

david sylvian at the RFH London

Went to see David Sylvian last night at the RFH last night, with Lo, Catster and The Cheat. I’ve been a big fan of his (that’s David Sylvian, not The Cheat) for ages, but had never got to see him live so was really looking forward to it. When I found out a couple of days ago that the wonderful and lovely Theo Travis was playing sax and flute with him, I was even more excited. Any day watching Theo play music is a good day.

The gig was, as expected wonderful – moodily lit, as you can see in the above photo, and the rest of my sneakily taken rubbish camera phone pics, the band played a range of stuff from right across David’s career, all the way from Ghosts through tracks of Brilliant Trees, Gone To Earth, Secrets Of The Beehive, Dead Bees On A Cake to last year’s Blemish (was Blemish last year? the year before? whatever…) – all good stuff. It was odd hearing DS without the foil of another guitar player – one of the defining features of his records is that he almost always has a mad guitarist as the random element in the midst of the calmness – BJ Cole on Gone To Earth, David Torn on Secrets Of The Beehive, Fripp and Trey Gunn on The First Day, Derek Bailey on Blemish etc… – but tonight it was just himself on guitar, playing simple acoustic strummy stuff on almost all of the tunes. Very simple acoustic strummy stuff – he appears to only use about 4 chord shapes… Which worked, but left me wondering what another guitarist would’ve added. Thankfully, Theo was there as that random more freewheeling element – the tracks without him were noticeably more restrained, tied more tightly to the sequenced tracks that fleshed out most of the gig with bleeps, squeaks and canned brass and woodwind. With Theo playing in and around the tunes, they took on a more spontaneous feel, and it seemed to lift the band into a more spontaneous place, intentionally or otherwise.

All in, a gorgeous gig. I love the fact that DS doesn’t feel the need to throw in an up-tempo number to please the crowd – the dynamic changes were largely left to whether the ever-brilliant Steve Jansen was playing predominantly acoustic or electronic percussion; the acoustic stuff being far more dynamic, which the electronic kept everything in a really tightly defined dynamic and emotional framework.

Duke Special and BJ Cole live at the Purcell Room.

Great gig last night – Duke Special and BJ Cole at the Purcell Room. I’ve known Pete Wilson, AKA Duke Special, for years – he’s a lovely bloke, hugely talented, and is finally getting the acclaim he deserves.

Last night’s gig was part of a ‘Cool Yule’ pair of gigs – the next one being the Juliet Turner gig next week, and I felt in some way proudly responsible for this one as the lovely promoter JJ met BJ at the gig BJ and I did together at the Half Moon a few months back.

The gig started with BJ’s set, with his ‘Trouble In Paradise’ trio, featuring Ben Bayliss on laptop monkeyness and Eddie Sayer as percussion hobbit – it’s a really great trio, with Eddie in particular adding a crazy human element to all the looped and programmed beats etc. The steel was a little too quiet on the gig, frustratingly so at first, but still ’twas a great set.

Then Duke’s set – it’s the first time I’ve heard Duke Special with a full band – tonight featuring the ever present Chip Bailey on percussion, Paul Wilkinson on fantastic bass and guitar, Ben Hales from Aqualung on guitar, bass, keys, BVs, percussion etc. Ben Castle on sax and clarinet, and then David Ford and BJ Cole guesting on three tunes. ‘Twas a great gig – moving, funny, beautifully played, all good nothing bad. Duke Special is going to be huge in the new year, so go and see him/them as soon as you can…

the aftershow party was magic – a room full of really lovely people, 80% of whom I already knew, and a load of other lovelies that I didn’t previously know.

Yay for Duke!

Pre-christmas must-see gig

I’m a huge huge fan of Juliet Turner, an amazing Irish singer/songwriter, who is a bit of a huge star across the water there, and has a pretty big following here too. I’ve just seen that she’s doing a gig at the Purcell Room as part of the Cool Yule series on Dec 22nd. You SO shouldn’t miss this. Head over there now (click that link above) and get tickets. Go on!! She’s got Boo Hewerdine doing the gig as well, who’s great, and her guitarist, Brian Grace is amazing too.

Go on! I’ll see you there…

I would mention the other Purcell Room Cool Yule gig i’m going to this wednesday with BJ Cole and Duke Special, but it’s sold out and I don’t want to rub your nose in it :o)

x

Last night's gig with BJ and Emily

Lovely little gig with BJ Cole and Emily Burridge last night – the Enterprise in Camden. It does have the steepest stairs in London, and after loading my stuff in, I wasn’t sure if my arms would be working in time for the gig, but they were. I also nearly brought the scaled down travel rig, but I’d have been in deep shit if I had because the PA there isn’t even close to being up to the task of reproducing StevieSounds. So Emily ran her cello through my rig as well, and BJ had his most beautiful fender amp with him, which always sounds like the music of heaven.

It’s a little room, and we had a little audience, but they were most appreciative. Nicest surprise for me was that during the afternoon I’d been thinking about older tunes I haven’t played for a while at gigs, and decided to do Danny And Mo from ‘Not Dancing For Chicken’ – a tune dedicated to Mo Foster and Danny Thompson. And who should walk in just as I started playing but Mo Foster. Always nice when the inspiration for a song is there to hear you explain why they’re so fantastic. Do you want to know the story behind the tune? OK – when I first started working on the tunes that would become Not Dancing For Chicken, I had just got a Gibson Echoplex, which offered loads more looping options – I was rather inspired by a guitarist in California called Andre LaFosse who was doing some amazing unique things with the echoplex, and was certainly a very long way from the long chord progressions, melodies and ambience that I was working on at the time.

So when I went into Jez’s studio to record the first version of the album, I was experimenting with a lot of really spikey angular electronica – using the replace and sus functions in the EDP all over the place, and getting some fairly cool effects.

however, when I got home after the sessions, I was listening to ‘Time To Think’ by Mo Foster, and had an epiphany, realising what was missing from the record – TUNES! I had nothing with any of the big romantic melodies that are what I do best, and all the ambient stuff was punctuated by bleeps and squeaks, some of which was great (and ended up on Lessons Learned Pt I) most of which wasn’t that good…

So I went back to the drawing board, and the first thing I wrote, straight after listening to that album of Mo’s was ‘Danny And Mo’. So there.

Anyway, back to the gig – I played Behind Every Word (with a huge cock-up on the B-section first time round – just had a brain freeze), then Danny And Mo, Despite My Worst Intentions, MMFSOG, What A Wonderful World and Deeper Still. I’d planned to do a whole load of improv, but went with sweet tunes instead. :o) And ’twas v. well received, which is most heartening.

Bj and Emily’s set was, as expected, beautiful. There’s an amazing empathy between them as players, and the classical arrangements work better than any rearranged classical works I’ve ever heard. It’s usually a recipe for disaster, but them playing Satie is a thing of great beauty. Emily’s a fab Cellist, with an amazing tone and touch. And BJ’s, well, BJ – a completely unique figure in the world of music.

in the second set they got me up for an improv, which started out as a gentle naive duet between BJ and I, swapped to a duet between Emily and I, then I looped a progression in D, and BJ and I started building up the ambience while Emily played beautiful melodic lines over it… and the fade got really dark with my big Sigur Ros guitar sound, and BJ’s twisted MoogerFooger distorted steel… amazing.

And so you have it, the story of gigs in london – small appreciative crowds listening to world-beating music. It’s the kind of thing that should be filling concert halls the world over. I guess it will… patience, dear boy.

Spearhead, Sessions and tonight's gig

Tuesday night was Spearhead night – my 5th time seeing them play, this time at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. They are, without doubt, my favourite live band in the world. It’s funky, celebratory, the tunes are great, the playing’s amazing and the lyrics make you feel like the world isn’t quite as lost as it seems to be if you just turn on the TV and watch… Michael Franti has a Shamen-like presence, encouraging the whole room to celebrate together, to encourage the celebration of differences, exhorting religions to focus on their similarities in order to work for a common aim, firing us up to get politically and socially active. All this under the distince haze and odour of many a spliff – bring on the smoking ban… ah well.

Anyway, I got there half an hour after they started due to teaching schedule and a remarkably early start time (headline band on at 8.30??) But the other hour and 45 was incredible as always. The new album, Yell Fire, has a strong reggae influence, and it gives another spin to the protest angle – Reggae, like Hip-hop has it’s origins in defiance, protest and inspiration for the poor and dispossessed (just have a listen to any Bob Marley, Steel Pulse or Linton Kwesi Johnson track for evidence), and like Hip-hop it’s been mostly hijacked by ‘bling’ culture, with so many reggae stars toasting about guns and booty… So it’s great to see it reclaimed as a medium for changing the world.

At the aftershow party, Franti was clearly enamoured with my coat, wondering which muppet I slaughtered to make it, but stroking my arm the whole time we talked. :o)

Yesterday was a heavy teaching day – yay! And today started with teaching and has moved on to recording. I’m in the middle of two remote sessions – one for Lobelia, a fantastic singer/songwriter from Montreal, and the other for Andrea Nones AKA DubNervous – a great electronica artist from Italy. Very different projects, equally enjoyable and challenging. Hurrah!

And tonight I’ve got the gig at the Enterprise in Chalk Farm, opening for BJ Cole and Emily Burridge – doors 8pm, tickets £8/£6 – see you there!!

Two Stevie-gigs this week.

OK, tomorrow night, I’m guesting at the 606 in Chelsea with John Lester – you all know who he is by now, and really ought to have bought his CDs, if my recommendation is worth anything to you at all. He’s fab. Tomorrow night is the official launch of his new album, ‘So Many Reasons’. Which is great. It’s fab. It’s magic. And I’m saying that without even playing on it, so it must be great.

We had a rehearsal today, which took all of 20 minutes. Theo Travis is on sax, Roy Dodds on drums, and basses covered me John, me on two tunes, and Andy Hamill – it’ll be great, don’t miss it. See the 606 website for more details – if you’re in the MU, you can get in free…

Then on Thursday, I’m playing a solo set at The Enterprise in Chalk Farm (opposite Chalk Farm tube station) – opening for BJ Cole and Emily Burridge. Which means it’s a gig I’d have been at even if I wasn’t playing, cos BJ and Emily are fantastic. And we’ll certainly do something together. Come on down! It’ll be great.

three line whip for london bassists… don't miss this.

OK, a few of you will have already had me bending your ear about how you HAVE to go and see Seth Horan at the Bass Centre. But for the rest of you, click on his name there and head over and have a listen – he’s an electric bass playing singer/songwriter, of extraordinary talent. Think male Ani DiFranco on a bass. It’s not wanky bass nonsense, it’s great singer/songwriter material that happens to involve some seriously great bass playing. There’ll be more details on the bass centre site soon, I hope, and there’s a thread about it over at bassworld.co.uk.

In fact, that week is a great bass week in london – cos on Monday 4th John Lester has his ‘So Many Reasons’ album launch at the 606 in Chelsea, and I’ll be sitting in on that gig (which will also have John on bass, and Andy Hamill on bass!), and then on Thursday 7th, I’m playing at The Enterprise in Chalk Farm, opening for BJ Cole and Emily Burridge, and will no doubt do some playing with them as well! So, set aside that as bass week, and go to all three!

Gigs over the next few days

Tomorrow night (Thursday) is this month’s Recycle Collective gig, featuring me with BJ Cole and Theo Travis – this is going to be a fantastic night for me, given that they are two of my favourite musicians to both listen to and play with. Theo, as you know, I’ve been playing with for years, and you’ve probably already got For The Love Of Open Spaces (if you haven’t, click the link to order it! :o) ) – he’s effortlessly inventive and melodic, and just gets better and better every time I hear him.

BJ is the most regular recycle guest, and keeps coming back cos he’s so much fun to play with! There’s something so unique about playing alongside pedal steel guitar, as harmony seems to work in a very different way on it to guitar, or a keyboard harmony instrument, so when BJ is laying down chords, the effect is to create a completely different kind of harmonic backdrop to what’s going on that you’d get anywhere else. He’s a fabulously creative musician, a lovely bloke, and well worth you coming out to listen to!

So that’s Thursday. Then on Saturday, I’ve got a rare ‘side man’ gig, playing for Estelle Kokot – fab piano playing jazz singer and songwriter, and ever so slightly nuts, in a good way. It’ll be a trio with her and Richard Spaven on drums, at The Octave in Covent Garden, and music starts at 9. I think it’s a fiver to get in. The songs are great, and it’ll of course be one of those rare chances to hear me playing normal bass, though I get a few solos in the set too, just no looping.

So go on, come to both, I dare you.

click here for the full details (venue address, ticket deets etc.) for Thursday’s Recycle gig.

Album review…

The new issue of Bass Guitar Magazine has a nice review of ‘Behind Every Word’ in it, written by Stuart Clayton. Here it is, reprinted for your pleasure –

“Behind Every Word is the fourth studio outing for acclaimed solo bassist Steve Lawson. With the intention of combing [I think that’s meant to be combining – steve] the ambient soundscapes of his previous efforts with a more structurally composed approach, Lawson had created a solo bass album that sounds… nothing like a solo bass album. The opening trafck, ‘Blue Planet’ offers up a silky smooth fretless groove which Steve punctuates with ghost notes in order to provide a rhythmic accompaniment. This line is them looped and becomes the foundation for the entire piece. Over it Steve adds piano like chordal parts, and a lilting ‘guitar’ solo. The diversity of sounds that Lawson coaxes from his bass and armory of gadgets is truly impressive here and indeed throughout the album. In fact, almost two minutes of ‘Jimmy James’ go by before anything that is recognizable as a bass guitar surfaces through the ambient, swelling sounds! Lawson has invited two guest musicians to join him on this record. Pedal steel guitar legend BJ COle guests on the track ‘Scott Peck’, his slide guitar playing being the perfect understated accompaniment to Steve’s chordal bass work. Julie McKee’s vocals add variety to the ‘One Step’, which in all honesty, at almost fifteen minutes in length is slightly over indulgent. Behind Every Word is unlike any solo bass album you will have heard before and is all the more fascinating because of it. I quickly forgot that it was a solo bass record and found myself enjoying it in the same way that I would enjoy a ‘chill-out’ album. It is in this way that Lawson has succeeded where many have failed – to make a solo bass record where the music truly comes first. Check it out – but keep your mind open.”

There you go – that’s rather nice. Clearly, I don’t think ‘One Step’ is over-indugent. I’m not even sure there is such a thing as ‘over-indulgence’, just good or bad music (and that was the shortest of the three takes that we did of the track! :o), but it’s nice to read. Thanks, Stuart!